Today, Kansas City has gone from trying to bury the nerve center of the early jazz movement, to trying to redevelop it. Ironically, this recent push is motivated by many of the same reasons that city officials in the 1950s launched slum clearance.
City government wants to increase the property values of the 18th and Vine District in order to generate property tax revenues and sees the neighborhood's Black musical heritage as the ticket.
While the city celebrates its storied musical past, it has a much more ambivalent relationship with the music that is being made there today—and the communities that make it.
The construction and redevelopment that began in the 1990s forced out more 18th and Vine residents and businesses: to make room for a Charlie Parker memorial, a soul-food restaurant was demolished, and several other existing establishments closed in the early 2000s. Developers focused on bringing in outside restaurateurs, for example, in lieu of locals.
Kansas City was once the nerve-center of Jazz—until neoliberal policies and government oversight strangled the community that nurtured it.
18th and Vine has been rebranded as the "Jazz District" and is home to several music venues as well as the American Jazz Museum, but the jazz that is highlighted by the museum is heavily curated. It presents a static vision of jazz as it appeared in Kansas City in the 1930s and 1940s; it is neither the entire history of American jazz, nor does it involve Kansas City's present. Recent strategic planning sessions found that it had a poor relationship with local musicians even though it depends on them for programming. In 2017, it even struggled to pay musicians for a music festival.
James McGee, the Mutual Musicians Foundation's secretary said that "Jazz in Kansas City is used as a branding mechanism. [Jazz] has very little actual investment outside of what you might see on the surface … we live on our past and our history, we lean on that far more than jazz hot spots like New York or New Orleans."
K.C.'s treatment of Black jazz culture—first as exilable, then expungeable, and now as exploitable—parallels national responses to Black people that mutate depending on what is most expedient for the white majority. Capital motivates these moves, just like in the Pendergast years, when crime families and white club owners profited off of the creativity of African-American performers.
Against this backdrop, the local community is still trying to enjoy music the way that it was done before: with a focus on homegrown talent and experimental sound. The center of this is the Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF).
Founded in 1917, when the musicians' unions were segregated, Musicians Local 627 was the union for African American musicians. Everybody who played in the city passed through 627 at some point. In 1972, the union desegregated, and 627 became a social club for its members, and eventually organized into today's MMF. Old-timers like Count Basie and Joe Turner would come back to play with musicians in the area. McGee sees the club as "a teaching and generational exchange of music, and that's what continues to go onto today."
In that spirit, MMF hosts late-night jam sessions on Fridays and Saturdays from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. In some ways, this is the easiest way to recreate what Kansas City jazz was like in the old days. McGee broke down a typical night for me. "If you come in at 1 a.m., it's going to be very light … at 2:45 or 3 a.m., the other clubs are gonna close and they're gonna rush over to us, so we go from 15 people to 100 people. Everybody will be loud, laughing downstairs, so much so that a lot of people that come for the first time don't even know there's a band upstairs, a whole quartet. If they do venture upstairs, they see another 60 people listening to jazz, just watching the quartet."
MMF doesn't just confine its music to jazz either, in keeping with the musical traditions of jazz in K.C., which was fueled by cross pollinating across different genres. The youngest musicians who play there, like McGee, whose stage name is James De Noir, are merging jazz and hip-hop. Ernest Melton, a saxophonist in the city, got his start playing there when a Jazz teacher took him. Recalling the club then, "at that time, there were still some of the older guys around. Better than going to jazz classes!" In turn, that spirit builds community. Melton added that "I get more a sense of community just from being a part of it. Keep the history alive, but also to create it. Ten years ago, I didn't know it was, but this is what happens when you nourish something and allow people to experiment there."
De Noir described his music to me this way: "It's been a migration from traditional hip-hop and rap to merging jazz and rap together." MMF's relationship to its community is grounded in the fact that it is a place for musicians and aficionados, anchored in the city's history, and is about "mutual musicianship." But De Noir also reinforced the importance of blues in K.C.'s musical traditions, saying that "One thing that's a secret to some is the way that the foundation functions … you almost gotta know how to play blues, you gotta know soul."
Today, as COVID-19 has limited how much musicians can gig and the size of audiences, MMF has adapted to the crisis. Rather than host large shows, the organization has brought people together to record new music. De Noir promises that it "goes further than just a jazz beat layered on hip-hop; the project that's coming is very instrumental." They hope to have the compilation out by Christmas.
Places like MMF are a counterexample to the neoliberal impulse toward using the cultures of marginalized people as a branding tool to attract investment dollars. MMF's commitment to collectivity serves to keep both culture and culture-producing spaces accessible to the communities who first gave birth to them. Against the newest wave of redevelopment, which tries to brand local histories for the exclusive benefit of neoliberal consumption, organizations like the MMF stand as the true custodians of the city's culture and history.